Downtown Duluth has changed dramatically since the early 1900s. Few of the businesses that lined the streets are still around.
But through it all, Columbia Clothing - known as Ed Barbo’s Columbia Clothing for the past 62 years - has survived. It’s operated in the same spot at 303 W. Superior St. for 110 years, an anniversary the business is celebrating with storewide sales through the end of the year.
As a haberdashery, Barbo’s offers quality men’s clothing, from sportswear to custom-made dress shirts and suits, as well as alterations and assistance in putting outfits together.
William Billstein founded the business in 1905 in the building constructed in 1891 at the northwest corner of Superior Street and Third Avenue West. The Billstein family operated it until 1936, when Davis Bradley purchased the business. In 1953, Ed Barbo Sr. bought the store. His son, Ed Barbo Jr., took over the business in 1974 when the elder Barbo retired. He has operated it for 41 years.
The reason for the Columbia name had nothing to do with the Columbia brand of clothing. But when the brand came out, the store was the first to carry its sportswear north of Minneapolis, Ed Barbo Jr. said. But he stopped carrying it when the brand became widely available in other stores.
“That’s not what we’re here for,” he said. “We tried to have exclusive lines as much as we could.”
That effort is one reason the store has lasted so long.
“We are continually improving our mix,” said Barbo, now 68. “Some lines went by the wayside. Others came on. But we stuck with quality merchandise, good prices and good service. It’s keeping what we know best and changing what’s not working.”
He says adding Leone’s Tailor Shop to the store in 2012 was another smart move, giving them quick turnarounds for alterations.
“They are the best tailors available in Duluth,” Barbo said. “It’s been a win-win situation for us. To have a good tailor is important.”
Surviving a century
The store was bigger at one time. In its early years, it filled the entire first floor of the Columbia Building, now called the Beal Building. And it’s been smaller, with less Superior Street frontage than it has now.
In the 1970s, the store expanded into the National Liquor Store space next door; the Underground, a young men’s department, operated in the basement. In the 1980s and 1990s, the younger Barbo ventured out with a few spinoff stores that eventually closed, including B.J. Spinnaker, a women’s clothing store downtown. A second Columbia store turned out to be not a good fit at Miller Hill Mall, which was more focused on women and children and bargain shopping, he said.
But sticking to the business’ forte of fine men’s clothing, sportswear and personal service has helped the store survive economic downturns, a changing downtown, evolving fashions and the rise of big-box stores.
The store continued while other haberdasheries closed.
Back in early 1970s, when Barbo Jr. joined his father’s business, there were a dozen locally or family-owned men’s haberdasheries in downtown Duluth - stores such as Livingston’s Big Duluth, McGregor and Soderstrom, Allenfall’s, M Cooke & Sons and Gately’s. Today, there are only two in the entire Twin Ports area - Columbia Clothing and Mainstream Fashions for Men, both in downtown Duluth, Barbo said.
“Big box stores came along with cheaper merchandise,” Barbo said. “But it wasn’t just a price thing, people started to wear fewer suits to work. Dress became more casual.”
Roger Teal, who retired last month after 46 years in the business - the first 20 years as a salesman at Seigel’s Clothiers in Superior, the last 26 years at Columbia Clothing - has seen the changes.
“Most people who owned family businesses either had children that took it over or other people who wanted to buy it,” he said. “But that doesn’t happen like it did years ago.”
It’s why Siegel’s Clothiers, the last haberdashery in Superior, closed in 1990 after more than 100 years in business.
“The owners were up there in age,” Teal explained. “It was time for them to get out, and there wasn’t someone to carry it on. So it closed.”
Keeping up appearances
But the need for such men’s speciality stores remains, Teal said.
While many of Columbia’s customers are affluent, they also include tradesmen and young men looking for their first suit. And its rental service outfits wedding parties and teenage boys for prom.
“I had the doctors and the lawyers and the bankers and the business people that need dressy clothes,” Teal said of his regular customers at Columbia Clothing. “But we sell far more casual wear of quality. We carry jeans, casual Saturday afternoon, going-out-with-your-wife-to-the-movie clothes. But it’s better stuff. It’s something you’re going to buy and have for a long time.”
Steve Yorde, executive director of the Essentia Health Foundation, has been a regular customer for more than 30 years. He’s bought suits, slacks, sports coats and sweaters there.
“I think it’s really important for people to look professional in the field,” he said. “And the great thing about Columbia Clothing is they have been able to meet not only the professional appearance standards many of us have, but also more relaxed, leisure clothing.”
He said he’s gotten to know the sales people well over the years, beginning with George Noble years ago and more recently Roger Teal. And now John Mohn, who was part owner of Allenfall’s before it closed in 2010, is working there.
“The personal service built up over the years is important,” Yorde said. “The service has been just exceptional. There’s a level of comfort in them knowing what my taste in fashion is. That’s been really nice. So I’ve been very, very pleased with that. And the quality of the clothing has been outstanding. I’m just totally satisfied.”